Mental Health Matters: Suppression

My mother died on Monday, September 4, 1989. It was Labor Day. That’s why I can remember it. My father returned from Northwestern Memorial Hospital that morning. When he walked in the back door, I knew life had changed. His red eyes and sunken shoulders spoke first. It was one of two times I’d seen him cry.

“She’s gone,” he said.

Then, he hugged me. Both of our faces were wet when he released me.

When we arrived at the hospital, my father handed me several quarters and instructed me to use the payphone outside of the intensive care unit to call family and friends.

The first person I dialed was my grandmother.

“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “I could feel it. We’ll be right there.”

She and my grandfather’s Michigan home wasn’t far; they arrived in two hours. Her voice disrupted the solace.

“She just couldn’t take it no more. Her little body just couldn’t take it no more,” she said.

My grandfather swallowed his grief and let out a small choke. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, turned to face the hallway, and blew his nose.

Others’ pain makes me cry, and my mother had just died. My eyes welled up.

“Don’t cry,” my grandmother instructed, “you had your mama for a long time. Sixteen years is a loooong time.”

img_6673Years’ prior, my mother had told me not to feel sorry for my own adopted self. Throughout my childhood, I’d been told not to cry over trivial matters. On Labor Day 1989, the lesson my family desired was finally solidified: there is nothing worth crying over, not even the death of one’s mother.

That Monday I swallowed my pain.

The next day I attended the first day of my junior year with hundreds of other Whitney Young students. When my friends asked me how my summer was, I continued swallowing my pain and casually replied, “My mother died yesterday.”

They thought it was odd. “I’d be home if my mother died,” one replied.

“It’s okay. Life goes on, right?” I practiced my calm demeanor.

A few days later, when friends and family congregated to pay my mother respect, I continued swallowing my pain. I used sarcasm to cover resentment. I stood in the vestibule and made my friends laugh about a man’s shoes or a lady’s church hat. Why should anyone feel sorrow for me, when I wasn’t allowed to feel an emotion for myself?

img_2576I swallowed the pain the whole 1989-1990 school year. I’d learned that angst is best covered with achievements and a smile. I knew how to achieve and my natural smile shone from ear to ear, no matter how I felt about my circumstances. Apparently I fooled everyone, because not one adult asked me about my emotional state that year, not even my father’s new girlfriend, not even a teacher at the best high school in the nation.

This is how I learned to push emotions down. This is how I learned to pretend to be okay when I wasn’t.

99 thoughts on “Mental Health Matters: Suppression

    1. Very unnecessary! It kind of reminds me of how humans have the fight, flight, or freeze response, which was useful a long time ago, but not so much now. It was probably useful for women and black women to suppress emotions centuries ago, not so much now.

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  1. A great article! You should have been allowed time to grieve, other people would always tell us to “stay strong” when a loved one dies, but its always healthier to let out your emotions sometimes!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Tear jerker is right! OMG Dr. G ! I am so glad that you began this mental health series. Incredibly vulnerable + powerful + insightful. Your journey to finding all octaves of YOUR VOICE — encourages us to find our own.


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  3. 😮 ‘there is nothing worth crying over, not even the death of one’s mother’, now that was a shocking thought that stopped me in my reading tracks! Yes your statement surprised me because we’re told by ‘experts’ in the media/radio that we don’t cry enough, suppressing ones emotions is bad for our emotional wellbeing. I never cry and I must admit I feel a little guilty because we’re told we should, wow 16 was young 😦 l am sorry, losing my mother even at my age would hit me hard. A thought provoking read.

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    1. Thank you for your empathy. It’s funny what we take away from our childhoods; that was the message i figured they wanted me to have (since they were always telling me not to cry) :-/

      Yes. From what I can tell, no matter what age you lose your mother, you are pretty sad about it…I’ve sen it with my friends who are now at the age when losing your parents is “common,” for lack of a better word.

      And I totally understand about the dog. I thought I was literally going to die when my toy poodle was put down.

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  4. Oh, Kathy! You made me cry. This is one of those few cases I’m lost for words. Because I cannot begin to even fathom how painful those experiences must have been for you. All I can say, I wish I could give that sweet sixteen a big hug. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Here I sit at my desk crying for you……for the tears you couldn’t release that day. I am so sorry that you were brought up not to show emotion… suppress it. I also come from a background of suppressing feelings and told that you aren’t to hug people like a grizzly bear but to barely touch then and just give them a double tap on the back. I now cry often and almost break ribs when I hug people I care about. But I am sorry you went through losing your Mom and wasn’t allowed to show your pain. Here’s a virtual big bear hug for you 🙂

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    1. I appreciate your empathy Lennon ❤ I'm like you now. I cry when i want to and show every other kind of emotion pretty freely. It's like we have to catch up for all the emotion we weren't allowed to show ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m so sorry that the people who should have supported you and loved you unconditionally at the vulnerable time in your life let you down so very badly. The fact that you can recognize how wrong that was, and yet have moved on to create a good life for yourself speaks volumes about your strength and character. I’m sure it was a long, hard, process…..but you are an amazing survivor and I hope you give yourself credit for that!

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  7. “Only the weak cry.” We were fed that garbage for far too long, especially in the African-American community. Grief is normal and we need to go through, especially children. Losing parents and family members makes adults anxious…so how are children supposed to ‘shoulder through it?”

    So sorry you had to go through this, but I admire you for using your pain to increase awareness for others.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Right. So, I understand that probably centuries ago, when some of us were enslaved, that this was important, but it’s so integral for us to move past this now. Like I said with therapy convo, it’s 2020!

      Anywho, glad you get my point here. Thanks for this comment Felicia ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for sharing!.. your mother has not left you, she lives in your heart and you can visit with her anytime you wish… 🙂

    Do not stand at my grave and weep
    I am not there, I do not sleep
    I am a thousand winds that blow
    I am the diamonds glints in the snow
    I am the sunlight on ripened grain
    I am the gentle autumn rain
    When you awaking in the morning hush
    I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight
    I am the soft star that shines at night
    Do not stand by my grave and cry
    I am not there, I did not die
    (Mary Frye)

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  9. Whew. Heavy and heartfelt. I hope you have since given yourself permission to grieve and to feel. Suppression is yet another way we learn to survive. But life offers so much more than just survival. ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you E! I’m sooo much better now that I’ve realized I’m the one I was waiting for (for a lot of things), including giving permission to grieve and feel. I’m up and out of survival mode girl 🙌🏾

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  10. I am sorry for this pain you have gone through. I cannot imagine it. I am glad that eventually you had a chance to grieve, and continue grieving and getting stronger.
    I worry, as my parents are getting older and frail, how I will handle their passing.
    I am sending hugs and love! Blessings! ♥♥

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much. I receive it and return it. I will say that there’s no way to prepare and from what I understand the pain is just as horrible. I’ve had several friends lose their parents in the past 5-10 years and their pain is palpable. Thanks so much for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Wow, Katherin – this was all so powerful and I’m sorry for the losses you endured all alone. You couldn’t share any feelings with anyone. And you were even told that “feelings” implied weakness. This is just terrible.
    How you recovered and went on is remarkable. Of course, maybe you had no choice – but you’ve turned these negative experiences into lessons that impart such wisdom. There is a different way to grieve. I’m just sad for all the years you must have carried a rock in your chest.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for empathizing Judy. It was definitely a rock in my chest. I remember going to see a reiki healer and someone else that works in divination (can’t remember). They both told me that my heart chakra was closed, and one of them even mentioned it was black (eek). I think shortly after is when I began to take a good look at myself and how I’d been functioning.

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      1. Reiki is wonderful and that was a beautiful path you chose. With self examination and courage, you changed the course of your life. I cannot imagine it was easy. You are inspiring.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I know that it can be hard and trying to remain strong and together on the outside when it hurts so much on the inside. I know that feeling all too well since my dad died in 2003.
    I hate that you had went through that the way you did, and it’s good that you letting it out. I pray that you continue to do what helps you to heal. Love and light, and a big virtual hug. ❤❤

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  13. This post makes me want to go back in time and hold the young you and offer space for you to cry as much as you wanted.
    Sadly, in order for me to have done that, I would have had to CATCH you before all the other adults made you totally stifle your immediate and natural emotions. A lot of people can’t respect the grieving process.
    I can remember in 1987 when a popular classmate and close friend of mine was killed in an automobile accident, our senior class was DEVASTATED. All the school did to commemorate was the obligatory moment of silence. No counselors, no nothing. Some of us wanted to look at his yearbook picture as a way of connecting to him, but one of the teachers barked, “Put that book up! Y’all know what he looked like!” God forbid we wanted to remember our friend’s face.
    Back then, grief was ignored at best and totally invalidated at worst. It’s slightly more acceptable now.
    Meaningful post here Doc. Thanks for being vulnerable enough to share.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you Lady G! I’m accepting all virtual hugs ❤

      That story is a crazy, but I totally believe it. A whole high school experienced trauma and the adults decided a moment of silence was all that was needed? We live in such a different time now.

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  14. There is nothing worse than someone telling you it’s not OK to cry or grieve. I’ve held back a lot of tears over a lot of things in my life. Because it felt too vulnerable, or I wanted to spare others the discomfort of having to deal with it or not knowing what to say or do. But tears are very cleansing and usually short-lived if you let them run their course. Therapists know this, that’s why they put a box of Kleenex within reach of the couch. Back in 2012, I returned to work just a day after I put my dog down. He was my best friend for 15+ years and it was all I could do to pull myself together, but I was determined to make it through the workday without crying. A coworker walked up to me in the parking lot, said she was sorry about my dog and asked how I was doing. The boss must have told everyone why I was absent the day before. I dissolved into a blubbering mess on the spot. Matilda put an arm around me and encouraged me to “just let it all out” which was an awesome way to handle it. I felt understood and supported and within a minute or so, I was OK and ready to get on with the day. 🙂

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    1. What you’ve said here Joan is exactly what I’ve learned. Sadness/anger/grief are all just emotions. We wouldn’t tell someone to hold in joy, I don’t think, but because the other types of emotion are seen as negative, we implicitly and explicitly ask people to do that in private or not at all.

      Also, I totally relate to the doggy death. My dog died in 2016. Luckily, I’d learned to cry freely by then. I had a similar situation as I sat in the parking lot of the vet. There was no Matilda, but I did allow myself to cry….loudly, and you’re right. I was sad for a while, but at least I wasn’t holding on to the pain of losing him.

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  15. It has always been hard for me to relate to those who are grieving. I try to imagine how they feel and I am often short of words to say too. My cousin lost her dad last year(a sudden death at that) and everybody kept praising her about how strong she was because she was in control of her emotions. I was concerned( i am quite sensitive and I always question actions) I called her to check up on her and how she is really faring. She however went “all strong” on me too. In her words ” she’s fine and losing a loved one is part of life”. Somehow my heart still went out to her but I also assumed I was thinking too into her being in control of her emotions. Thinking of it now, maybe she just tried not to let herself feel the emotions or maybe she thinks it’s a sign of weakness. This is a rather long read😄. Your post just sent me down the memory lane.

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    1. I think it’s hard for us all, really. Most people don’t want to deal with their own emotions, much less someone else’s, you know?

      This is the part that I most related to, though: “everybody kept praising her about how strong she was because she was in control of her emotions. I was concerned( i am quite sensitive and I always question actions).” This is what people did with me as well. Most of the time, the person is not strong at all. They’re just holding on to grief/sadness/anger, whatever. I think the best thing to do is to let your cousin know that you’re there if she ever needs to talk.

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  16. here I was, wishing like anything I’d be orphaned or I’d get amnesia & be found by nice folks… your story is all too common for many & touches on terrible memories for others like me… so sorry, Kathy – many many thanks for reaching out to help heal us all, dear

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    1. Ha! One of my biological sisters always says she wishes she was adopted, and I’m like huh 🧐 but yes unfortunately, we have these commonalities, right? I’m just hoping that, as you’ve said in the end, something will push us all to heal 💫

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  17. I could absolutely hug you right now.
    There is a lot I can relate to here after my brother’s suicide. I felt it was my responsibility as the oldest child of my parents to keep it altogether for their sake. It was years alter when I had been speaking with my dad and he said, “I was really selfish at the time…I never thought about how this impacted you or your sisters or brother” (my other brother. My dad felt responsible for how I felt…it almost felt like I didn’t do a good enough job holding my own emotions at bay.
    I am sorry for your loss and I truly know, even after 20 years, the pain of a loss never really disappears.

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    1. I’m accepting all virtual hugs right now ❤

      I'm sorry you can relate to this and I'm sending you a hug right back. There's so much to say here. I think we all can do a better job of managing our own emotions, which (I'm hoping) will vibe out to others in a useful way, you know? Parenting, as you know, is challenging sometimes, but it's so important because as children we implicitly and explicitly learn how to be from our parents/caregivers. So, what you've shared is interesting to me. You were suppressing because you thought it was your job and your dad took responsibility all these years for your emotions.

      Life…it's so complicated sometimes.

      And, yes. I continue to say that unless someone close to you has died, there's little way you can know and understand how death can impact your life, forever.

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  18. Love your clear and honest writing style. I’m sorry for what you went through at sixteen and that you lost your mom. I too can relate. I lost my mom at age eleven, in 1976 (also in Chicago). Like you, I was never helped to grieve, and I never did, until years later when that grief was muddied by other events. I’ve been writing memoir and essays on the general theme of un-witnessed grief finding a witness.

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    1. Oh wow. All of this synchronization is pretty cool. And “muddied by other events” is exactly what happens the remainder of your life when you have unresolved trauma I’ll be checking out your blog soon.

      And thank you for that compliment 💜

      Liked by 1 person

  19. I went to work the day my grandmother died. My students responded like your friends, and my answer was basically, “What was I supposed to do? Stay home and…do what?”

    So, yes, I can relate to this.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. For sure! Every time I read one of your posts, I relate so much. And it’s that weird thing where our stories aren’t exactly the same but the experiences were so similar.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. It has definitely been a lesson in unlearning specific behaviors. And yes I know lol that’s part of the reason I like reading your blog. I know I’ll get an authentic emotion, no matter what.

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  20. Hang in there, my friend. This will be the first Mother’s Day without my mother. We learn good, bad and indifferent from our our relationships growing up. I hope you can find the good and hold onto it moving forward.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Awww I’m sorry to hear this Cherie! Trust me. It’ll get easier. And yes, I agree. I’ve definitely found more good than bad, but I have learned that a few bad lessons can shape how you move through life. Sending you light and love this week 💫

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  21. My heart just breaks for your 16-year-old self in this sad story Kathy. I hope you allowed tears in the recollecting of it. We should not neglect them, as they call in help. I have to remind myself of this as I am not a big cryer either.

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  22. You put that all down so well. How are you now? We just lost our precious brother in law. My own son is rather critical. I understand how easy it is for ppl to say..oh this will pass. But tears. This morning I broke down in a phone call. The tears dont stop. It’s been a while since I cried like that. I so get this post. Thankyou for a generous share. And I wish you all the peace you richly deserve.🌻

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you so much. I’m very sorry to hear about all that’s going on in your life. I’ve learned that unless someone has gone through a situation, they rarely know the “right” words to say. However, I’m happy to hear you cried today.

      I’m going really well today. I’ve learned how to have and move through emotions and not to hold them in. It’s important. Crying, that is. It’s just as important as laughing or being angry, or whatever other emotion.

      Thank you, especially for those well wishes at the end 💞


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